at Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

Why paint? It’s slow. It’s expensive. It’s difficult to do well. And in a world of color Xeroxing and MTV, the opulent medium often seems something of an antique, an elegant old sage whose dancing days have passed. Yet perhaps because of its long association with geniuses and kings, painting still tugs at countless artistic imaginations. For better or worse it remains the game with the highest stakes, the art world’s center-ring show.

Chicago painter Andrew Young is determined to demonstrate that the continued hallowedness of painting is deserved. Pillaging a wide spectrum of Western art history, he takes lessons from such diverse idioms as Italian fresco painting, Dutch still life, even abstract expressionism. Using a painstaking technique favored by 15th-century Italians for their most sacred images, Young makes disarmingly beautiful pictures in a loose, almost subjectless language of color and texture and form. Looking at his most recent work, on view through May 30 at Betsy Rosenfield Gallery, one is compelled to believe (if there was ever any doubt) that there’s life in the old game yet.

Living in Siena, Italy, in 1983, Young saw pictures that would shape the direction of his artwork for years. The Italian masters helped their patrons worship God (and, not incidentally, helped them impress their neighbors) by adorning linen-covered panels with depictions of holy persons. Using a mixture of egg yolk and pigment, these artists made precisely balanced pictures in glowing colors that, at their best, seduced their viewers with the illusion that they were looking at something divine.

Impressed by the luminous quality of this medium, its longevity, and the tough, flat surfaces the panels afforded, Young took up the challenge of egg tempera. Mounting Masonite board on boxlike wood frames, he put the sacred patina of the medium to work in the service of a more secular quest for transcendence. Egg tempera is no easy collaborator, however. Watery, quick-drying, and generally hard to handle, it requires concise compositional planning and a very sure hand. He learned by examining the older panels and the precise prepainting cartoons of Italian fresco painters, and began to nudge blessings from a demanding but ultimately generous medium.

The results are remarkable. Young maps out the terrain of his surfaces with concise geometric shapes in highly architectural compositions. Hexagons, half-circles, and rectangular blocks give an impression of order to the painted realms Young fills with more fluidly rendered flowers, birds, and apparently formless fields of color. Using a palette heavy with ambers, woody reds, yellow creams, and black, Young makes meditative, ordered, abstract painted collages that keep viewers searching for one thing to see.

For these paintings seem to have no clear subjects. Though in Rare Music a clean vase shape hugs a ruler-straight ground line, the orchidlike blooms floating above are not rooted in it. Amber rectangles and columns cover most of the painted field, and crimson dribbles appear on the picture’s surface like rust or some wordless graffiti. In Blue Below, a windowlike space in the center of the field is framed with clean-edged blocks and columns of amber. But this compositional center is painted (over?) in black. Neither empty nor full, the framed black focus of the painting encourages our search for narrative but refuses to deliver the goods.

The images float puzzlingly between pictorial idioms. They employ the clean order of their Renaissance antecedents and the subjects of still life (flowers, containers), but their swimming surfaces appear on the brink of abstraction. Many of the pictures look as if they have been painted and repainted, then painted again as if, like his viewers, the artist himself were engaged in a struggle to decipher some secret within these frames. The surfaces themselves look cracked and brittle. In fact Young often incises the picture surface as he composes a painting, making the image look decayed–yet more ephemeral. Mounted on cherry frames so that they seem to hover just above the wall, these paintings seem ready to evaporate even before we turn our gaze.

The blocklike solidity of the mountings is a comforting reminder that these pictures are actual things. That physical security is lost when Young turns his hand to watercolor on paper. With such a fragile support, his art almost dissolves into the wall. These equally measured but more breathy renderings of flowers and geometries are thus most effective when they echo the strong architecture of his paintings.

If Young painted cities, his pictures might look much like Chicago–beautiful from many perspectives, grand in form, yet showing decay from time and significant change. But since Young is more interested in picturing an ideal–beauty–rather than a thing, the object of his vision is not so easily determined. Young’s artwork floats in a nether zone between the physical and the spiritual that Western art has found difficult to frame. And because the guidebook for such subjects is shelved in the heart rather than the head, it’s difficult to articulate just what makes these pictures so moving. I’ll settle for saying that the experience of looking at them is much akin to what happens when, crossing the street or turning a corner, a particular stranger tugs at your view. It’s the warm hue of her cheek, perhaps, or a wee bit of sparkle in the corner of his eye. You’re not sure how it happens, but somehow street and sidewalk disappear for a moment. You turn, look again, and think, just for a second, that you’ve fallen in love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Van Eynde.